***Stats within credited to Nathan Lawrence and the team at SBAnalytics.
In Worcester, Massachusetts there’s only one team televised each Saturday in the fall — the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
I grew up watching Arnaz Battle streak away from Michigan State, Tom Zbikowski dealing deathblows on punt returns, Jeff Samardzija catching sky-hook back-shoulder fades from Brady Quinn right before they became the fashion. It was a team that never quite cracked “elite,” but also one that carried a tough disposition and managed some — definitely not all (ahem, Reggie Bush) — significant victories.
In short, it was one hell of an introduction to becoming a Dawg when I moved to Athens in 2010.
It was fortunate for me that in that same year — in the wake of three uninspired seasons that followed Quinn’s graduation — the loveably disheveled, hooded-sweatshirt-encased head coach Charlie Weis was replaced by that wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, Brian Kelly.
I have every reason to love Kelly. Another native New Englander, he grew up in Everett, Mass. an hour east of where I went to school. He played and coached at Assumption College in Worcester, the same school my aunt Cathleen served a decade as campus minister. My godson was baptized at Assumption’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit for St. Peter’s sake!
I should admire this man, yet sympathies evade me.
With Kelly, ND abandoned Adidas in favor of Under Armour (an unnatural partnership I’ve never quite understood), traded the oversized, lunchpale sweatshirts and galoshes of the Weis era for starch whites and Brooks Brothers 1818 two-button’s, and painted the pants with mustard. What the hell, man?
And that’s just the clothes.
The Kelly era hasn’t been without controversy either. Despite being the winningest coach since Holtz, Kelly’s teams have seen their share of scandal — academic, personal conduct, and otherwise — and sanctions and vacated wins have followed.
Now, if you ask a single Notre Damer there’s not a one of ‘em looking to bring back that Weis era, which ended embarrassingly and at great expense to the institution. In fact, I doubt anyone is looking to trade this “Kelly 2.0” epoch for any of the others that followed Holtz’s [first] retirement in ‘96. But despite whatever success they’ve achieved, there’s something artificial about these Notre Dame teams. They lack the spirit of those teams with Quinn, Anthony Fasano, Mike Anello, Terrell Lambert, Zbikowski, and others in the early-aughts. Much like the now-gold leaf gilded helmets donned by the Irish, this team feels like the painted-over version of something that used to be good.
And lest we forget, the Dawgs have their own axe to grind here. At the end of the 2012 season, Georgia did everything but win against Alabama in the SEC Championship before ND rolled over and handed the Tide a title in January. And then last season, the Irish leapfrogged a contending Georgia on their way to getting dismantled by Clemson in the Cotton Bowl Playoff semifinal.
Some might argue the public shame of those lopsided Irish losses and their own 20-19 victory amidst a sea of red in South Bend during the 2017 season would be enough to balance the scales for Georgia. But there’s still business to attend to here. The easiest way to prevent Notre Dame from being considered in December is to beat the hell out of them in the regular season — in primetime on national television, if possible. Ask Ohio State how resounding defeats have influenced the Playoff Committee in the last two seasons. They’d tell you there’s some work yet to be done on these Irish.
The Dawgs have an opportunity to balance the ledger on Saturday.
When Clark Lea was promoted to defensive coordinator following the departure of now-A&M DC Mike Elko in the offseason, he inherited a defense whose footprint would be familiar to you. The Irish were a defensive squad predicated on not giving up explosive plays (9th in isolated points per play, a measure of explosiveness) and forcing opposing offenses to sustain drives in order to score — a close resemblance to your 2018 Dawgs.
Even more so than Georgia, Notre Dame was suffocating in the red zone — they surrendered only 3.34 points per trip inside the 40 to opposing offenses, good for fifth in the country.
While Lea would hope for that same production out of his 2019 squad, the reality is that the foundation of the 2018 defense now plays on Sundays. DT Jerry Tillery, LBs Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, and CB Julian Love all had their names called in April and Notre Dame is still trying to figure out who slots in to replace them.
Lea comes from Elko’s 4-2-5 coaching tree and ND’s roster is built with that system in mind.
Unlike what you see with Georgia’s interior lineman, Lea will typically have defensive tackles play one-gap allowing them to attack up field. Rather than holding the point of attack, the defensive linemen are relied upon to force disruptive plays in the backfield.
That difference in responsibility is reflected in their size — they don’t have anyone on the two-deep at or above 300lbs.
Linemen slanting and attacking up field places responsibility on the linebackers and safeties to quickly read and react downhill and fill running lanes. While the Irish ranked 71st in the country in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, they finished 21st in overall run defense and 26th in surrendered runs of five or more yards.
That is the profile of a defense with strong in-the-box defenders making up for a line that isn’t generating much push.
The skill of Coney and Tranquill masked some larger deficiencies on last season’s defense, and in them you get the feeling they are trying to replace a couple Roquan’s (not actually a close comparison) with a couple Reggie Carter’s. While the Irish have solid secondary anchors in Tony Pride Jr., Alohi Gilman, and Jalen Elliott, it would be asking a lot of them to step up in run support on every play.
Can the Dawgs run base offense on the Irish D?
Even with the change at OC, so far not much has changed about the Dawgs’ offensive identity.
Through three weeks we haven’t seen much to indicate that the Dawgs can’t dictate on the ground. If Isaiah Wilson plays on Saturday, the Dawgs offensive line will outweigh the Irish starters by a combined 550 lbs.
Small sample sizes, crappy competition, etc etc — the Dawgs still find themselves first in the country in rushing success rate, gaining the necessary yardage on 61% of the plays in which they choose to run. They’ve gained at least five yards on 59% of their rushing attempts and only been stuffed at or behind the line in 9% of them. They’ve dominated in situations where they should have dominated.
The same can’t be said for ND’s defense which finds itself ranked 69th in the country in rushing success rate against after playing…Louisville and New Mexico State. They also wilted on first down against those teams, allowing at least five yards 39% of the time.
So far there’s little to say the Dawgs won’t line up and run inside zone down their throat.
What if base offense gets taken away?
If you’re Clark Lea and, presumably, trying to take away the run game as a first priority, that would look like committing at least one safety to run defense. Two weeks in he has to know he’s working with linebackers that aren’t of the same athletic caliber as those he had last season. Louisville beat Notre Dame a number of times by catching linebackers in the wash on outside zone handoffs and involving safeties on tackles.
Even if he were confident in the safeties ability to react and fill, you know he’s seen James Coley’s tape from the last three weeks.
Georgia has been slowly grooving a scheme that allows for an “extended” running game that isn’t predicated on needing to run between the tackles to move the ball on early downs. You’ve seen the Dawgs run outside zone, inverted veers, counters, swings passes out of motion, and tunnel screens to the receivers so far in early down situations.
It’s paid off in a major way — the Dawgs are third in the country in success rate on first and second down, converting each 63% of the time. That means two-thirds of the time they are getting at least 7 yards before they even get to third down. Were Lea to commit extra resources to the box to try to thwart that early down success, James Cook is too athletic an athlete to require linebackers to keep up with on the edges:
Those linebackers had trouble even chasing down New Mexico’s backs to the sideline:
They can try to take away inside zone, but Coley will run right around them.
An extra safety would also place ND’s corners in man coverage on the outside. You can reach whatever conclusion you’d like on who wins that matchup, but so far I like who the Dawgs have trotted out to catch passes this season. And if the Dawgs are able to dictate on the ground like I anticipate they will, the Irish have already shown they can be manipulated with run action once a run game is established.
Notre Dame stunts and brings pressure in third down situations and the Dawgs have a bit of tape this season showing they’ve had trouble dealing with it.
In general, Notre Dame’s pass rush is excellent — they are third in the country in havoc rate and 22nd in success rate allowed on passing downs. They scheme to produce that havoc, but they have the talent on the edge to compliment it. Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Daelin Hayes can all ball. The above is more an issue of communication than skill, but worth keeping an eye on in third down situations.
Kelly hired Chip Long away from Mike Norvell’s staff after Long spent five years learning Norvell’s pace and space scheme at Arizona State and Memphis.
The transition was rocky last season until they inserted Ian Book as their starter at Q and let him out-efficient opposing defenses. Looking back at the 2018 stat profiles, Book picked up a struggling offense.
Despite the occasional Dexter Williams breakout, the running attack ranked 93rd in rushing efficiency, 112th in rushes of five yards or more, and 121st in rate of rushes stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. While they return 60 starts between them, the offensive line lost their two best athletes to the NFL. Judging by last year’s production and the line’s struggles against Louisville it’s hard to say whether that gets better.
Book, on the other hand, was pretty outstanding. He led the 18th most efficient passing attack in the country and piloted the Irish to at least the middle of the curve in terms of total offensive production. Not quite championship-caliber, but good enough to beat most teams.
The only place Book really struggled was with explosiveness (66th), and in Long’s offense that can be a problem.
Long changed the overall footprint of this offense, transitioning to the Norvell scheme that runs a ton of plays, quickly (25th in adjusted pace). He has a handful of run looks — dart (tackle pulls and inserts):
And outside zone (run from shotgun or under center):
They run each of those concepts out of a bevy of different formations and personnel groupings. In addition to the pace, Long makes this even more difficult to defend by tacking a pass option and quarterback keep onto virtually every shotgun or pistol look that the Irish come out with:
Notice the backside slant that Book steps into in the event that the safety overplays the run.
Incorporating these single-read plays has given Book easy two-player games on early downs and he’s demonstrated he can make the right decisions. They are gaining at least five yards on first down 57% of the time (zone read here with a bubble screen if the end sets a hard edge):
As soon as the run has been established, Long takes shots. This entire offense is built around giving the quarterback easy reads most of the time, so that they stay ahead of the chains, and can take one to two calculated shots every possession. They’ll either look like vertical passes off of run action where enormous, physical WR Chase Claypool has shown the ability to dominate (gets PI here):
Or gadget plays off of run action:
Can Notre Dame run base offense on the Dawgs defense?
The 2018 Georgia defense was a linebacker away from being top-10 caliber. Even with the struggles in rushing opposing passers, the Dawgs were the most efficient pass defense in the country and finished 3rd in explosive-plays-against.
That trend has continued.
Through three games the Dawgs remain a top-15 pass defense that has magically found the ability to effect the passer and force negative plays. Against Notre Dame, attacking and funneling the zone read inside is the first step in disrupting Book. Clemson took away virtually all of Book’s pass looks by leaving overhangs in the slot to cover bubble screens:
And the same on backside slants:
With the safeties and star occupied with those overhangs, the responsibility lies with the front-6 to maintain gap integrity and not allow the ball carrier to spill outside.
Last season, the Dawgs had a miserable time in run defense, surrendering runs of five yards or more on 50% of all carries. But early on this season, they’ve improved. Opposing teams have averaged less than 4 yards per carry through three weeks and much of that is the result of matured depth on the line, the development of Monty Rice at inside linebacker, and the emergence of Quay Walker and Azeez Ojulari.
Truly, one of the great keys to this 2019 Georgia team will be how effective they can be on first and second down. It’s clear that on third downs and obvious passing situations, the Dawgs have plenty of skill to bring to the table. Nolan Smith, Jermaine Johnson, Ojulari, Adam Anderson, and Channing Tindall have all had success with rushing the passer when the run threat is neutralized.
But getting to those situations is the metric to track here.
So far the Dawgs are holding up early. They’ve kept opposing offenses to a 36% success rate on first down (36th) and 26% on second (7th). By the time offenses get to third down they need to gain 8.57 yards to move the chains. That is a winning formula that will help get Nolan Smith onto the field:
This Notre Dame offense is built to present Book with easy decisions on early downs and to avoid negative yardage plays. Early data and the eye test would tell us that the Dawgs can hold up most of the time, but Notre Dame will be a worthy early challenge for this Dawgs front. We’ll learn a lot about this team by watching how they contain (or don’t contain) Book on first and second down.
What if base offense is taken away?
The Dawgs win this game if Notre Dame is unable to run the ball with their dart and zone concepts, whether Book keeps the ball or not.
Long’s entire scoring strategy is built upon long passing plays set up by the run. Once Clemson took the run threat away from the Irish they were happy to rush three, spy Book with Isaiah Simmons, and either man up or form a cloud ~10 yards from the line of scrimmage. That strategy overwhelmed Book and forced a number of mistakes and 3-and-out’s in the second half of the Cotton Bowl.
The Dawgs can now say they have a defensive roster with the same athletic profile as Clemson. We’ll learn whether they can execute.
SP+ Prediction and Game Grade
SP+ has the Dawgs favored by a little over 12 in this game, and Vegas is sitting at about 14. That puts it squarely in the “Dawgs should win” bucket.
Truth be told, I think SP+ and Vegas are being conservative here. There’s a world in which the Dawgs jump out to an early two-score lead, the crowd gets involved, and a bloodbath ensues. Regardless, if I’m wrong, and this is a four-quarter contest I’ll still take the Dawgs to out-physical and outlast the Irish.
In the space of a few short years this matchup has evolved into a rivalry of sorts, where the opposing teams and fanbases definitely don’t like each other.
Maybe that’s one of the silver linings of this Playoff era we find ourselves in?
With a few teams always on the outside looking in, you end up with blood feuds between fanbases that wouldn’t normally co-mingle at all. The conflict makes this whole thing a little more fun.
One of the narratives coming out of the Irish camp involves how arrogant last year’s Dawgs team was to call out Notre Dame’s place in the Playoff, only to be served a veritable ass-whooping in the Sugar Bowl at the hands of the Longhorns.
With only a few contests a year, and far fewer of these non-conference “friendlies,” it’s not often a team gets an opportunity to answer for a previous season’s transgressions like this. The last time the Dawgs met up with Notre Dame, they were a fledgling program relying on luck, cunning, and a few heady plays by veterans to eek out a victory. That game in many ways served as an Archimedes lever for the program, propelling it forward into relevance on the national stage again.
On Saturday, the Dawgs have an opportunity to go a step further. They can silence detractors and announce themselves as a contender for the belt this year and many years to come. If you’re in attendance, you owe it to the boys in red to be loud as hell.
Tee it up.